"I would have joined a terrorist organization." --Ehud Barak, 1999, when asked by a reporter what he would have done if he were born a Palestinian.*
Ehud Barak (אהוד ברק) was born on February 12, 1942, on Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, a Kibbutz his immigrant parents helped found near the Lebanese border.
He joined the Israel Defense Forces, in 1959, at age 17 and served as a soldier and commander of an elite unit. In 1972, he led the mission to storm a Belgian airliner hijacked by Palestinian guerrillas at Tel Aviv airport, and in 1973, disguised as a woman and carrying a purse packed with explosives, led a raid on a Palestinian group responsible for murdering Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games.
He also held various other command positions including Tank Brigade Commander and Armored Division Commander, and General Staff positions, including Head of the IDF Intelligence Branch. During the 1967 Six Day War, Barak served as a reconnaissance group commander, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War as a tank battalion commander on the southern front in Sinai. Barak was active in Mossad operations in Beirut in 1973 where 15 PLO commanders were killed. In January 1982, he was appointed Head of the IDF Planning Branch and promoted to Major General. During the 1982 "Peace for Galilee" operation, Major General Barak served as Deputy Commander, commanding the Lebanon Valley force during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
In 1983 he was appointed Head of the Intelligence Branch of the IDF. In January 1986, he was appointed Commander of the IDF Central Command, and in May 1987 was appointed Deputy Chief-of-Staff. He served in the IDF for 35 years, rising to the rank of Lieutenant General in 1991, the highest rank in the Israeli military. Barak was awarded the "Distinguished Service Medal" and four other citations for courage and operational excellence. In the meantime, Barak earned a Bachelor's degree in Physics and Mathematics from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a Master's Degree in Engineering-Economic Systems from Stanford University. He is an accomplished pianist and is fluent in English and Arabic. He is married and has three children.
Following the May 1994 signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement with the Palestinians, Lt. General Barak oversaw the IDF's redeployment in the Gaza Strip and Jericho. He played a central role in finalizing the peace treaty with Jordan, signed in 1994, and met with his Syrian counterpart as part of the Syrian-Israeli negotiations.
In politics, he served as Minister of the Interior (1995) and Minister of Foreign Affairs (1995-1996). He was elected to the Knesset in 1996, where he served as a Member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In 1996 Barak became the leader of the (left-leaning) Labor Party, after the assasination of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres' election defeat months later.
Ehud Barak was elected Prime Minister of Israel on May 17, 1999, taking the reins from predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu. ABC News reported that Barak's centrist views made him appealing to middle-of-the road voters who had become disillusioned by a standstill in Mideast peacemaking and bitter internal divisions under his predecessor's (Netanyahu's) rule.
Barak's term as prime minister had several notable events, most of them controversial:
- Following Israeli political procedure, he forms a coalition with ultra-orthodox party Shas, after Barak promised an end to corruption sponsored by religious parties.
- Meretz, a left-leaning secular politcal party, quits the coalition after they failed to agree on the authorities given to Shas deputy-minister in the Ministry of Education.
- The Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, after 17 years of Occupation, following through on his promise to withdraw within one year of being elected
- The kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah, aided by local UN peacekeeping force.
- Peace negotiations with Syria.
- The passing of Tal Law which gives a legal statute for Ultra-Orthodox Jews exemption from military service.
- The Camp David 2000 Summit which meant to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but utterly failed.
- Barak, along with ally Bill Clinton, put the blame for the failed Summit on Yasser Arafat, with Barak claiming he exposed "Arafat's true intentions". Later, Barak was blamed by Israeli left politicians and groups that he killed the Israeli peace movement by presenting Arafat as a "peace refuser". This is disputed, as is everything in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and depends on who you ask.
- The eruption of the al-Aqsa Intifada.
- The killing of 13 Israeli Arabs by police and one Jewish Israeli civilian by Arab mob, in October 2000 Riots.
In 2000, a wave of violence broke out in the West Bank
and Gaza Strip
, leaving hundreds dead. Barak's popularity plummeted and he called early elections, in an effort to stave off his opponent Netanyahu
from succeeding him. Instead, he had to contend with militant Ariel Sharon
. According to political analysts, it was believed that Sharon would be no match for Barak, but as public opinion of the incumbent
fell, Barak lost by a wide margin. Some accuse Sharon of going to the Temple Mount
before elections deliberately, knowing it would trigger the violent outbreak, which would in turn force Barak out of office, but that is only speculation by a few editorials. He may have done the ill-advised visit just to rankle his enemies.
Ehud Barak completed his term on March 7, 2001 after his loss to Ariel Sharon in a February special election for prime minister. He can still be seen giving interviews on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and when I saw him interviewed on CNN and MSNBC, he still put the blame on Yasser Arafat.
* Gideon Levy, a Ha'aretz reporter, asked Barak the question. My Editorial: I love that quote, it's such an honest answer. Remember, Barak has no love of Arabs, he was a decorated general of Israel, killing them was his job. However, even he knows that you can't dispossess people and then try to occupy their refugee camps. Thus lies the big difference between Sharon and Barak; Barak seemed more inclined to settle with the Palestinians, considering Yitzhak Rabin his mentor.
"Israelis must free ourselves of the burden of ruling the Palestinians, who have been residents of this land for hundreds of years."
--Barak, praising Israel's further withdrawal from Hebron in 1997
Barak's campaign website, now gone, was at http://www.barak2001.org.il/